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News from campus

U.S. Army Funds New Institute

Just as the Apollo program opened up the field of microelectronics, MIT’s new Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies could usher in a new era in materials science. The institute, announced in March, will create nanomaterials for foot soldiers-smart clothing and sophisticated gear to protect them against biowarfare agents, say, or support their muscles during combat.

The U.S. Army selected MIT to head up the research effort because of the Institute’s strong industry ties and solid science and engineering programs. MIT will receive $50 million from the army over five years and another $40 million from industry. Edwin Thomas, professor of materials science and engineering, will direct the institute, which will bring together 135 MIT faculty spanning nine departments, associates from the army, DuPont and Raytheon, and doctors from the Cambridge, MA-based Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology. Several MIT researchers are already developing smart materials that could have military applications, such as alloys that switch between solid and fluid states and photonic fabrics that reflect thermal radiation. In addition to helping equip soldiers, the army funds could also advance materials science in general, leading to new innovations in health care, for instance, or telecommunications.

Engineering Students Gain Experience in Industry

The School of Engineering launched its new Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program (UPOP) for sophomores in January. Inspired by MIT’s successful Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP)-in which undergraduates perform research with faculty-engineering dean Thomas Magnanti proposed a similar program for those planning careers in industry.

The program started off with a weeklong introductory seminar for participating students during Independent Activities Period. Seventy-seven sophomores attended classes and workshops taught by faculty and industry professionals, covering such topics as business communication, system dynamics and product design. Several MIT alumni participated in the seminars, offering advice and serving as contacts with industry. For the second phase of the program, students will intern at firms such as General Electric and Merrill Lynch. Engineers, managers and human-resources personnel at the various companies design the internships in collaboration with MIT staff. This ensures that students have mentors and learn about teamwork and technical communication in addition to using their engineering skills. In the fall, students will complete the one-year program, for which they receive seven credits, by writing reports and delivering presentations based on their summer experiences.

Mighty Mice

Although it may be decades before humans experience Mars’s gravity, mice may only have to wait a few years. MIT students are gearing up to send mice into space in a spinning capsule that simulates the red planet’s gravity. This spring, the International Mars Society awarded MIT students the opportunity to lead the mission, which also includes students from the University of Washington and the University of Queensland, Australia. The goal is to understand the effects a Mars environment, with one-third the gravity of Earth, would have on humans. “We know a bit about how Mars gravity affects plants and single cells, but we don’t know what happens to mammals,” says MIT graduate student Erika Brown, who is the project’s science director.

Based at MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the group plans to launch the spacecraft in mid-June 2005. At a distance of 300 to 400 kilometers above the earth, the spacecraft-measuring one meter across and two meters in height-will orbit the planet for 50 days. During that time, four of the 11 mice will give birth. If successful, these will be the first mammals ever to give birth in space. The results would indicate whether humans could settle on Mars.

MIT students are designing the mice compartment and the science experiments. University of Washington students are building the spacecraft’s propulsion, power and communications systems, and students from the University of Queensland are designing the spacecraft’s reentry and recovery components. The group is in the process of raising $10 million in private funds; already an anonymous donor has offered to match all contributions at 50 percent.

Celestial Champions

Forty high-school students nationwide are rubbing celestial elbows with Ringo Starr, Ella Fitzgerald, Albert Einstein and the like, as MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory named near-Earth asteroids after them in March. The students were finalists at this year’s Intel Science Talent Search, a national science competition that awards scholarship money to high-school seniors for their work in science research and innovation.

Every year, Lincoln astronomers discover thousands of near-Earth asteroids as part of the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (Linear) program. Funded by the U.S. Air Force and NASA, the program collects asteroid data from a pair of telescopes located at the Lincoln Laboratory’s experimental test site on the White Sands Missile Range in Socorro, NM.

To promote science education among elementary and secondary students, Lincoln Laboratory director David Briggs and Linear’s principal investigator Grant Stokes created the Ceres Connection, a program to name some of the asteroids after exceptional science students and teachers. To find potential honorees, they partnered with Science Service, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC, that runs several science competitions, including the Intel Science Talent Search. “There is no other program like this one that names asteroids after students,” says Stokes, a former Science Talent Search winner himself. Rather than naming Lincoln Lab’s glut of asteroids willy-nilly, Stokes says, Linear is happy to reward exceptional science students with cosmic namesakes.

Pioneering Exam Goes National

Since 1998, MIT has assessed the writing ability of first-year students with an innovative online writing exam. This summer, thanks to a grant from the MIT-Microsoft Research alliance known as iCampus, incoming students at Caltech, the University of Cincinnati, DePaul University and Louisiana State University will also take the online placement exam. Although it will appear that they are working on Web sites hosted by their own schools, these students will actually be working off a Cambridge server and taking an exam based on the MIT model. Five to 10 additional universities will tap into the MIT procedure next year; in 2004, the number is expected to swell considerably.

Leslie Perelman, MIT’s associate dean of undergraduate education, developed the online exam-the first of its kind in higher education. Students write essays at home and submit them electronically. Caltech’s Writing Center director, Steven Youra, welcomes the exam, saying it “gives students a fairer opportunity to produce writing that is most representative of their work. And we don’t have to wait for them to come to campus.”

Magic Trio Corrects Genetic Disorder

Using a tricky combination of therapeutic cloning, stem cells and gene therapy, biologists at MIT’s Whitehead Institute have developed a new method for treating immune diseases and other genetic disorders. This is the first time researchers have combined all three laboratory techniques to yield a cell-based therapy, which they have successfully tested in mice.

To develop the therapy, the Whitehead team (headed by Rudolf Jaenisch and George Daley, PhD ‘89) first created an embryonic clone of an immune-deficient mouse to generate embryonic stem cells-those that have the potential to develop into any type of cell in the body. Once the genetically identical embryo grew to 100 cells, the researchers extracted a small number of embryonic stem cells and applied gene therapy to them in order to repair the genetic defect causing the immune deficiency. The corrected cells developed into immune- and blood cell precursors and were then injected into the sick mouse, partially restoring its immune system.

In addition to treating inherited genetic disorders, the technique could be a more effective way of treating patients with leukemia, Daley says. For instance, patients needing bone marrow transplants but lacking suitable donors could instead receive customized cells genetically identical to their own. Adds Daley, “Just as drugs revolutionized medicine in the last century, I think stem-cell-based therapies will revolutionize medicine in the next century.”

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